Biloxi’s Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum crab sign on the Mississippi coastline (all photos by Stephanie Stuckey)
When the first French colonists arrived in 1699 to what they would call Billocsi after the local Native America tribe they found there, the area now known as Biloxi, Mississippi, has always been a popular landing spot for explorers and fishermen alike.
The sleepy little Mississippi port really didn’t come into its own, however, until the early 19th century, and even then there were few Mississippians that lived along the coast. Those that did live there eked out a living as fisherman, supplying the local population with some of the most succulent shrimp and plumpest oysters that mankind had ever tasted.
Still, no matter how succulent the shrimp and plump the oysters, fishermen still made little money because they couldn’t ship their catches very far without fear of it spoiling. Three things would change all that by the mid-1800s: the coming of the railroad, the invention of artificial ice, and the acumen of a few local Biloxi businessmen.
Mississippi’s Cannery Row
In 1872 the L&N Railroad established Biloxi as a flag stop on its line that ran the Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana. Around the same time, machines were invented that would make artificial ice for refrigeration and keep food from spoiling so quickly.
Seeing this as an opportunity, Biloxi businessmen Lazaro Lopez, F. William Elmer, W. K. M. Dukate, William Gorenflo, and James Maycock collectively brought together $8,000 and opened the first oyster packing business in Biloxi – Lopez, Elmer & Company – in 1881. Located on Back Bay Biloxi’s Reynoir Street, they canned not only oysters, but also shrimp, and even sold raw oysters in bulk, all supplied by the abundant waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
After taking a trip to Baltimore, Maryland to learn more about the seafood industry, W. K. M. Dukate was impressed by the work ethic of the Bohemian immigrants working in the industry there. As a result, Dukate and his partners worked out a way to transport some of the Bohemian workers from Baltimore to Biloxi, and the first workers arrived on January 11, 1890. The workers lived in rows of little shotgun shacks built for them by Biloxi factory owners. Though they weren’t paid much, the Bohemians would continue to migrate to Biloxi for the next 28 years and become a great benefit to the Biloxi seafood industry.
When the Bohemians first arrived in there in 1890, Biloxi canneries were processing two million pounds of oysters and 614,000 pounds of shrimp a year. Those numbers would triple just two years later with a dozen canneries reporting a combined catch of nearly six million pounds of oysters and 4.5 million pounds of shrimp. With a population of around 8,000 people, Biloxi was processing so much seafood in 1903 that it became known as the “The Seafood Capital of the World.”
By 1930, Biloxi’s canneries reported that 20,000,000 cans of oysters and shrimp and 17,000 gallons of raw oysters had been shipped out of the city that year. That same year, local citizens got together and created the Seafood Festival to honor the importance of the industry to Biloxi and the vital part it played in the economy of the Mississippi Gulf Coast economy as well as the cultural fabric of Biloxi.
When the state legalized casino gambling in the 1990s, it seemed that the high-rise, high-rolling resorts would begin to overshadow the seafood industry. In fact, with the influx of construction crews, hospitality workers, and tourist gamblers, the new gold rush instead helped to stabilize the seafood business, with casino kitchens understanding the value of this fresh, local food source. Although it may no longer be the Seafood Capital of the World it was 100 years ago, the seafood industry still plays a big part in Biloxi today.
While shifting industries, populations, and hurricanes have all had an impact on Biloxi’s seafood production, the most consistent champion for the business has been the presence of local families devoted to the cause. Local history museums are loaded with stories of generations of these families involved in seafood.
Surnames as diverse as Lesso, Mavar, Rosetti, Gallott (responsible for ushering in the area’s Vietnamese fisherfolk), and Desporte stretch way back, some to the mid-1800s and are still essential players in harvesting, packaging, shipping, retail, and restaurants today. Thanks to this solid family backbone, Biloxi’s seafood processors are some of the largest in the country, with clients spread across the globe.
Plus, the annual Biloxi Seafood Festival continues to celebrate the city’s rich culture, heritage, and connection to the seafood industry. The event is held every year on the second weekend of September, and attendees come from all over to enjoy live entertainment, arts & crafts, kids activities, and some of the best seafood on the Gulf Coast.
See ’Em at the Museum
So by now you’re probably wondering how I know all of this stuff about Biloxi. Well, I learned it by exploring the 300 years of history, heritage, and culture that you can find at Biloxi’s Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum.
Over six galleries at the museum take you from the diverse environment of the Mississippi coastal wetlands, to an exhibit on canning factories, to a giant hall filled with some of the most beautiful wooden boats and schooners to ever sail Mississippi’s abundant Gulf waters.
If you’re feeling a little more “hands-on,” then it’s all hands on deck at the museum which offers chartered cruises aboard local schooners for up to 44 people. For the landlubbers among you, they also offer “Walk on Sail” tours, where weekly Sea & Sail Adventure summer camps are also available for your little mariners aged 6 to 12 to learn about sailing a schooner, boating safety, and the rules of the sea. 🌊
More of a roadtripper than a seafarer, Stephanie Stuckey is the CEO of Stuckey’s, the iconic roadside stop that’s been selling pecans and pecan treats since 1937.
If You’re Going, Go! Gulf States & Stuckey’s
Are you planning a road trip to Coastal Mississippi or just passing through? Then check out more fun things to see and do along America’s Third Coast at Go! Gulf States.
No matter where you’re going in the Gulf States this season, be sure to take Stuckey’s along with you. We’ve got all of your favorite road trip snacks like our iconic Stuckey’s Pecan Log Rolls and Pecan Pralines.
If it’s along America’s third coast, let Go! Gulf States and Stuckey’s help get you where you’re going.
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